Sunday, January 8, 2012

Across The Universe

Julie Taymor, 2007 -- Netflix

Back when this film debuted in the theatres in '07, I asked my wife, a near-lifelong Beatles fan, whether she wanted to go see it.  She replied that she had no desire to see Beatles songs bastardized so as to try and string them into a cohesive narrative.

I remember years ago I took an ex, a Nina Simone fan, to see a Nina Simone documentary which was followed by a live jazz band performing Simone songs.  She enjoyed the doc, but wanted to leave quite early into the noodling-heavy live performance.  She clarified that she liked Nina Simone as an artist and not someone else's interpretation of her.

Personally, I've long had a fairly healthy appreciation -- attraction, even -- for cover songs.  I've frequently enjoyed cover versions of songs more than the originals.  I think being a hip-hop fan in my formative years, I was constantly exposed to remixes and variations of the same songs, so I'm often eager to hear how a certain song is interpreted by someone else.  I'm also not a purist when it comes to music, so no song and no band is sacred, at least when it comes to remixing or covering.

At the same time, in recent years, the proliferation of Broadway musicals based off of the works of popular artists, from Queen to Green Day, has turned the concept of "covers" on its head, as these stage performances make desperate attempts to string an unconnected sequence of songs from a single artist into a cohesive narrative (and let`s not get starting on the homogenization ray that is Glee) .  Akin to how most of Hollywood`s big budget output is derived from known commodities (books, toys, comics, tv shows), the same lack of imagination has struck Broadway`s big budget output, only they`re turning to the collective works of various pop musicians.

Across the Universe is, essentially, a cinematic version of one of these Broadway plays, which makes complete sense as it`s legendary Broadway director Julie Taymor lensing the project.  After making an audacious big screen debut with a daring adaptation of Shakespeare`s Titus in 1999 (having come off the stunning development of the Lion King for Broadway), and followed that up with the widely heralded Frida in 2002, Across the Universe was quite heavily anticipated in some circles, and certainly had earned any buzz that preceded it, but ultimately it was a box-office disappointment and critics were underwhelmed.  Catching up with it nearly 5 years later, it seems to have found a following of its own, but the critical response still seems spot on.

The film doesn`t have just one grand design, stringing Beatles songs into a 2 hour feature, but a second wherein it attempts to capture the progression and essence of the entire decade of the `60`s within its time frame.  It doesn`t outright fail on either attempt but the results are, as one would expect, awkward, often times forced, and occasionally very, very painful.

Like many a Broadway show, the script doesn`t just follow the cliched story of two star-crossed lovers, but thrusts them into an ensemble.  The boy and the girl are named Jude and Lucy, naturally.  Jude leaves Liverpool for America to find his estranged father, finding fast friendship with Lucy`s brother, Max, and falling into a communal apartment situation in New York with an aspiring singer, Sadie, and a shy, abused lesbian, Prudence.  Eventually Lucy joins them in their little commune, and Sadie meets the Hendrix-like Jojo who helps rocket her to stardom.  It`s through the many characters that Taymor takes them through a highlight reel of the 1960s, starting with the transition from 50's suburban innocence, to the Detroit riots, to psychedelia, to Vietnam, to the Weather Underground, to the Beatles' rooftop gig.

To simplify the timeline of the 1960's into one narrative is exactly as clunky as one would expect.  To do so while also pigeonholing Beatles songs into the works, acting at times as both an emotional trigger for the events on screen as well as character beats for the figures involved, it's a true mess.

There are a couple instances where the performances are inspired covers ("Why Don't We Do It In The Road", "Oh, Darling"), and as one would hope for from a Taymor production, there are some exceptionally compelling visuals that accompany some of the songs ("I Want You").  However, many of the songs are dull, soulless renditions that feel completely wedged into a situation they weren't actually meant to represent ("Hey Jude", "Dear Prudence", "Strawberry Fields Forever"), and still other songs are abject failures.  Bono's performance of I Am The Walrus is a self-indulgent, labored effort that visually plays like a rejected Zooropa video.  Many of Taymor's visual flourishes here are straight up cornball, or the visual inventiveness struggles with the literal interpretations of the Beatles' lyrics.

At 2 hours and 8 minutes, it definitely feels bloated, and despite the rapid progression through the decade, it still feels exceptionally slow.  Much of this falls on the lack of character development (the film generally relies on the songs to build their personalities and traits), equally making it difficult to connect to the characters, to care about them and their stories (some, like Prudence and Jojo disappear and reappear, rarely ever feeling necessary for a scene other than for a song). Despite being a journey, it's ultimately an unrewarding and (considering Taymor's prior work) disappointing experience.